Moral Dilemmas: Rational or Rationalizing
Vacations are fun, but mine threw me off my writing schedule. I am back, continuing where I left off a few weeks ago. Thank you for reading. Subscribe if this is your first time here! Let’s help each other be more Life-Intelligent!
I get it. It’s been a minute since I published Part 1 of the Moral Dilemmas posts. In that one, I noted that our intuitions evolved into psychological biases that favor what is familiar and right in front of us. Thus, we are likely to ruin our expensive new shoes by jumping into a pond to save a drowning child, and if there is more than one, probably the one that’s most like us. But we are less likely to donate money to charities that save children all day long if they are way across the world.
However, should we be saving any children?
What if the child you save at the expense of your fancy shoes grows up to be a despicable human being? The next Hitler or a deranged serial killer who eats kittens for breakfast. Your act of kindness would result in inflicting a lot of suffering down the road.
Consequentialism, which estimates what’s morally right by considering the greatest benefit to the most people and therefore focuses on the outcomes of an action rather than on the action itself, may contend that saving a few thousand starving children in Africa with your generous donation may result in more suffering because these children will have children of their own and that’s more children that need food and will potentially starve.
But how far into the future must one look to find the outcome that warrants the action taken? In the short term, your dollars will save more lives in Africa than they will produce a benefit to you at home.
By doing a moral cost-benefit analysis in which the end justifies the means and by figuring out when exactly is “the end,” we can arrive at different outcomes and pick the one that suits us.
So, if you are the proverbial person at the trolley track holding that lever that can switch the path of the trolley and kill the one worker who’s down the line but will save the lives of the five other workers who are down the other line, you’d have to pull that lever. You save five at the cost of 1.
By the same utilitarian logic, your doctor could decide that you have to die so he can harvest all your organs for the sake of seven other patients who are waiting for organ transplants and will die without them. So at the cost of your one life, seven others will live. Would you sacrifice yourself? If you said yes, then go ahead. People are waiting a long time for kidneys, livers, lungs, and hearts, EVERY DAY.
How would you feel living in a society where your one life is evaluated constantly against the lives of others who stand to benefit from your death?
Why do we give the dead so much attention and consideration? We could just dump them in the trash. They are dead and won’t care. You will save lots of money, and since we already have landfills, we won’t take extra space for cemeteries and could build houses instead. Relatives won’t have to come from far away at their expense, possibly taking time off work to sit and cry at a ceremony. Everyone can find a more productive use of their time and resources, especially if they are poor with very few resources.
But somehow, we intuit the importance of what is a “proper” burial despite the various costs, and anyone who throws grandma in the dumpster will be viewed as a callous and despicable person. What rational standards are we using to make that evaluation?
Then the next question is, “can an action be objectively designated as morally right,” considering all the different value systems in the world? Perhaps, the ten commandments qualify since most religions converge on acknowledging their moral value. Therefore, thou shall not kill, lie, steal, etc. What’s morally right is always right, according to Deontology. We must agree on moral foundations, or society will fall apart in total anarchy.
And yet what should you do if you must kill someone in self-defense? Turn the other cheek?
As far as drowning children are concerned, if what is morally right is always morally right, thou shall save even the evil one, even if thou knowest that they are the Antichrist.
Somehow, despite the challenges in defining what is morally right and, therefore, what are our moral obligations, we chug along obeying most laws and managing not to cause harm to others as much as we can. Most of us that is. Clearly, the prisons are full of people who have caused one kind of harm or another, and many more roam the streets swindling and scamming their way to whatever they want.
Most people know nothing of moral psychology or philosophy and still figure a way to make “the right” decisions, or at least they think so when the decisions they make sit well with them. Of course, every person you ask will tell you how they got to decide something and why they believe it is right. But if you’ve been reading carefully so far, you should be prepared to ask yourself, “are the reasons given the real reasons.”
We all would like to think we are rational actors and make decisions in a rational way. But that’s not what science tells us. It’s more likely that we make decisions first AND THEN come up with the reasons why. I tried to find the study I read a long time ago in which scientists ran an experiment in which they asked people the strange question of whether it is OK for an adult consenting and curious brother and sister to have sex one time on vacation. I couldn’t find the study, but it went like this, everyone said NO. When pressed, subjects said things like if they have a kid, it may have birth defects. Or because it’s gross. Or because brothers and sisters shouldn’t have sex. For every objection, the scientists had a fix. They will use a condom. Roman emperor Caligula had sex with his three sisters, and no one considered it gross. And so on. Until finally, the subjects admitted that they did not know why an adult brother and sister couldn’t or shouldn’t have sex.
This other study concluded that people rationalize to create cohesion and the fictional story they would like to believe. In other words, we are not so interested in what is true or what is right, only in what makes sense with the rest of the narrative we’ve created about ourselves and our lives.
Psychologists will even tell you that rationalizing can be a healthy therapeutic process in which you come to terms with loss and adverse events in your life. It does indeed make people feel better. It’s been shown that when people a stuck in a situation outside of their control and did not see a way out, they will rationalize why it’s not so bad after all, try to find the silver lining, or even find a way to believe it’s a good thing.
But if they see an out, they will retaliate and persist in trying to get out of it. Funny how that works.
So, why shouldn’t you throw dead grandma in the dumpster? Are your answers real reasons or rationalizations? Does it really matter what they are? No one will want to be friends with you if you do it anyway. It takes a special kind of person to do something like that. And we all somehow know it and agree about it.
So much of life is predicated on nothing but hunches we have about right and wrong. It’s amazing humans haven’t blown themselves up already. It could happen any minute, though. We’ve become more fragmented and less united over ideas of right and wrong. We’ve pushed the boundaries of acceptability and grown more individualistic and self-centered, which leads to more internal and external conflicts.
And we sure have them.
Thanks for reading.
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